Defying terrorism through music and an exhilarating Jeremy Denk: September's best classical concerts

09.21.16
Jeremy Denk
The Telegraph

A piano recital covering 700 years of music: by most accepted definitions, that ought to be not just an oxymoron but an impossibility. But the usual barriers fall whenever Jeremy Denk is at the keyboard. One of today's most musically questing artists, the American pianist has earned himself the right to play what at the Wigmore Hall he called "a mad programme". Something with little precedent, his "Medieval to Modern" recital attempted to tell the story of the Western musical canon in one short evening.
 
Denk opened with Guillaume de Machaut (born c. 1300) and Gilles Binchois (born 1400), playing arrangements of their vocal music. Purists might recoil, but his procession through four other early Franco-Flemish composers would have disarmed all but the most puritanical, and Denk truly made the piano sing, stressing the vocal impulse that underlies all music. He covered 200 years before getting to an original keyboard piece — from Byrd's My Ladye Nevells Booke. Virtuosity arrived with Scarlatti and Bach, whose Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor drew a performance of great freedom and flair.

Serene beauty and contentment entered fleetingly with the slow movement of Mozart's Sonata in G, K283, but it was striking how all the other composers seemed to be striving in new directions. Denk brought ought the drama (at almost Glenn Gould-like speed) of early Beethoven, and his contexts constantly shed new light on familiar pieces. The first two of Chopin's Preludes placed him of the vanguard, too, just before we heard tonality pushed to its limits in the Liszt arrangement of the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan. Late Brahms and Schoenberg flowed naturally onwards.

Denk played Stravinsky's Piano Rag Music with spiky nonchalance, and further highlights were Etudes by Glass and Ligeti. It takes a remarkable musician to sustain a feat such as this (everything except Stockhausen's Klavierst ück I was played from memory), yet Denk turned his exhausting intellectual journey into something quite exhilarating. 
 
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